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CES 2019: UK steps onto the global tech stage ahead of Brexit

While uncertainty prevails in London, in Las Vegas the UK presents an optimistic front.

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CES 2019 marks the year the Brits finally stepped up their game at the Las Vegas expo, after multiple years of half-hearted attendance when the country languished in the wake of tech trailblazers such as the US, China and France.

Flying the flag for the UK's tech sector at the show was the government's Department for International Trade. The hope was to increase inward investment in the country's tech scene, as well as boost exports and strengthen existing trading partnerships.

The British Pavilion on the show floor at Eureka Park was double the size it was in 2018, and startups at the stand were all smiles thanks to reports of sales and distributor deals they'd successfully secured during the show. The oblong booth was a hive of activity and amiable conversation. And never in my life have I seen so many men in suits at a tech show.

Over on the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, all's not so upbeat and rosy. With the UK's impending divorce from the EU moving closer by the day, and no deal on the horizon, there's a distinct air of anxiety lingering over the British economy, and the tech sector is far from immune. The country's bigger presence at an international trade show is timely, given that this a crucial moment for the UK to reinforce its links with the tech world beyond Europe.

On Wednesday, ZDnet reported that investment in British tech fell last year amid widespread uncertainty over Brexit. The UK still continues to attract the most venture capital investment in Europe, but numbers are down, whereas investment in France and Germany is on the up.

The UK's automotive sector is also struggling, with Jaguar Land Rover announcing 4,500 job cuts to its 40,000-strong British workforce on Wednesday, citing uncertainty over Brexit as one of the reasons.

At a CES event Monday, Liam Fox, secretary of state for international trade, declared that tech was "indispensable" to the post-Brexit prosperity of the UK.

"This is our biggest representation so far at CES and is indicative of a UK with a genuinely global outlook," Fox said.

Two years ago, the CEO of the group that organizes the tech show hit out at the UK on stage at CES. The country's lack of support for its tech companies should be a "source of embarrassment," said Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association.

At the opening keynote presentation of this year's show, Shapiro presented Fox with an award for the UK's increased presence, though Fox, an outspoken proponent of leaving the EU, was heckled by the audience with cries of "Brexit."

"We applaud that the UK has stepped up its presence at CES in a major way, reflecting a renewed commitment to innovation and entrepreneurship," the CTA's senior international communications manager, Teresa Hsu, said in a statement.

Speaking to multiple sources from across the UK technology industry at the show, the consensus was that Britain would've stepped up its game at CES regardless of Brexit, but that the looming March deadline may have accelerated matters.

"There is no greater stage to do business," Fox said in a statement.

Quality vs. quantity

In large part, the increased UK presence at CES is down to Mike Short, former Telefonica vice president, who now serves as a government advisor.

"When I came to CES last year as the new chief scientific advisor to the department of international trade, it was clear that our impact was rather underwhelming," Short said in an interview. "So I said let's go and talk about it with colleagues back in the UK, and they agreed with me that we would step up."

The number of companies has roughly trebled to over a hundred this year, he added, and next year he'd like to see the government increase its presence in the health and wellness sector at the show.

In spite of the year-on-year growth of the number of British companies exhibiting at CES, the UK Pavilion is still dwarfed by that of the French, which took up around a quarter of the space in the Eureka Park startup section of the show with some of the 414 companies the country brought to CES this year.

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The UK Pavilion at CES 2019.

Katie Collins/CNET

The UK may have a smaller contingent, but some British companies have succeeded in making a big impact.

First-time CES visitor Moasure won the Showstoppers LaunchIt startup competition. The company came to the show with its motion-based measuring tool, a little puck you can move from point to point instead of using a tape measure.

Moasure CEO Alan Rock, who's been developing the company's technology for over 16 years, said he's not sure the company would've been able to attend this year without government backing.

"There's absolutely no way we would have got to where we got to without the support," he said. "It's a very valuable prize -- we couldn't have afforded to do that as a startup."

Not all UK exhibitors supported by the government are new to the show this year. Entrepreneur Janko Mrsic-Flogel has been coming to CES on and off since 1995. He said support from the British government waned over the years but is finally looking up again.

In light of Brexit, it seems the UK government is putting renewed energy into its relationship with the US, and that its bigger showing at CES this year is just one part of that. Both Short and Fox emphasized that they saw the tech industry in the US, which will be worth £400 billion (about $510 billion) this year according to the CTA, as an opportunity for Britain.

"We need to get a big slice of that," said Fox, "and frankly, whether Britain was leaving or staying in the European Union, we need to raise our act."

The UK is looking further afield too, to the countries that are booming in Asia, Short said.

"We need to make sure we accept that a lot of science and technology, which leads those exports, is a global activity," he said. "So staying involved with all sorts of countries of innovation is a good thing that we've historically done, and will continue to do."

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